Arcane Game Lore

Shoot Straight, Conserve Ammo, and never, ever, cut a deal with a dragon.

Hard sci-fi, realism, & consistency

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I like in my RPGs.  For those of you who have been reading my posts, it probably looks like I prefer science fiction to fantasy.  And it’s probably true, I definitely lean that direction and given my background (BS Physics, MS & PhD Astronomy, work as a software developer) it’s probably not surprising.  Now I love a good fantasy book, movie, or game just like the next guy.  In fact, the best game I ever played in was a fantasy game (although with some sci-fi overtones/backstory, but the game itself was wizards, warriors, priests, and rogues).  It’s just that science fiction is closer to my heart and is where I’m spending my limited free time right now.  So I’m going to be talking about science fiction in this post.

Hard vs Soft

When I first started thinking about the topic of “what I like” the hard vs. soft dichotomy was the first thing that came to mind.   When people talk about science fiction games, the topic of hard verses soft sci-fi often comes up and they like to classify the games as such.  I get the feeling that these definitions (or at least their interpretations) are very subjective as I have often seen different people describe the exact same system as both soft and hard sci-fi.  So I guess I’d better begin with what I mean

Hard science fiction

To me hard science fiction is more science than fiction.  It stays close to what we know about the laws of physics.  It doesn’t seem too far removed from our current day technology.  Sure there are things like faster than light (FTL) travel, laser guns, lots of spaceships, and possibly aliens, but mostly things are as we know it.

Soft science fiction

If I think of hard science fiction as more science than fiction, then I guess soft is more fiction than science.  Things like artificial gravity, “the force”, jumping halfway across a galaxy without batting an eye, and other such “magical” technologies.

And I guess that if that was the division, I’m probably in the hard sci-fi camp.  However, as I was thinking about it, I realized that wasn’t really what defines it for me.  Which brought me to thinking about


There is a sliding scale about how “realistic” a game or setting is.  There are personal tastes all along the spectrum.  For me this comes in two flavors.

The first type of realism kind of goes back to the hard sci-fi idea in that it asks, how realistic, or close to modern technology (or a reasonable extrapolation thereof) is the game/setting.  The closer it is, the more realistic.  And I definitely lean toward games that are more “realistic” in this sense.

The other kind of realism might be labeled simulationism for simulationist or something along those lines and refers to how realistically the rules simulate reality or represent how things would “really” work if you were to experience them in person.  This covers things like how long things take to accomplish, diversity/number of skills and how they apply, how deadly weapons are, encumbrance, etc.  At some level this is the crunchiness of the system but it’s possible for crunchy systems to be unrealistic (In which case, they’re just complicated as far as I’m concerned).  I’m definitely in favor of this type of realism as well.  And I’ll have to admit, I’ve never actually met a game that I feel was too crunchy.  But that may just be because of my math and science background and the calculations and such that typically accompany a crunchy system don’t bother me.

But as I reflected on this more I realized that really wasn’t what I was exactly trying to put my finger on either.  Which brought me to my final point:

Internal consistency

In the end, I think this is what I’m really looking for.  Does the game/setting make sense?  If you have a technology, have all the implications been explored?  If there are things you would expect to be possible because of a technology but you can’t do it, is there a good reason why?  If there are limitations, are they reasonable or just arbitrarily imposed because the designer didn’t want that to happen?

When it comes down to it I’m just a logically minded person and I think what I really look for is logical consistency.   For me that internal consistency and “making sense” trumps everything else.  I think my preferences for “hard” sci-fi and realism flow into that as the more things are on that side of the spectrum, the more likely they are to be consistent.

And that probably also why I like to tinker with my games and am starting to write my own.  I love Star Frontiers but anyone who’s spent any time in that game knows there are a few logic holes and things that just don’t make sense and weren’t completely thought out (not to mention orthogonal descriptions of some things in different places).  I think what I’m really trying to do is fix those issues.

What about you?  What do you look for in your games?  What do you like in your favorite games that attracts you to them?  Sound off in the comments below.

Categorised as: General

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